Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why The Rabbit But Not The Hare?

One of my biggest questions about the whole rabbit fondness in Medieval England is that the hare is native and plentiful on the island. So why did the medieval Norman gentry feel the need to import rabbits? I started by doing a little quick research on the common differences between the two because that might help explain the Normans desire to import the rabbits rather than hunt the hares.
Both hares and rabbits belong to the same Linnaean classification family - Leporidae - and both are plentiful, quick breeders and adaptable to a wide variety of environments.[1] (FYI: apparently the terms “harlot”, “whore” and “hare” all meant pretty much the same thing in Middle English and came from the same root[2]) The hare and the rabbit are both edible and can be prepared in the same fashion; they are both low in fat content and carry the same health issues for those eating the meat. They both feed on the same things, feed at night, live in the same areas, have the same enemies, and both have sensitive ears, nose, and quick speed.[3]
Major differences between the hare and the rabbit include the fact that hares are born with fur and open eyes, unlike rabbits. Hares are solitary and live in nests above ground while rabbits are communal and live in burrows below ground. Hares are larger and heavier than rabbits and consequently can jump further, than a rabbit and keep up their speed for longer periods of time. Many of the hares turn white in the winter while rabbits keep the same color fur all year round. Since I have been a vegetarian since I was 11 I have never eaten either but the hare supposedly has a gamier flavor than the rabbit. Probably the most major difference between the two is that the hare has not been domesticated while the rabbit has been domesticated in Europe since at least the Romans.[4]
With these similarities and differences in mind, it seems even more illogical than before to import rabbits because hunting hares seem to provide all the practical benefits of hunting rabbits without much of the work associated with the upkeep. They are bigger and provide more meat, they require no upkeep, their meat is more flavorful, and depending on when they are hunted, their fur can be a variety of colors without requiring access to special breeds. According to a text by Susan E. Davis and Margo de Mello, “Vikings [who were the ancestors of the Norman people] thought rabbits were as frightening as sea monsters,” because in much of Western Europe, rabbits were associated with evil.[5] (this is also one of the possible sources of the concept of a lucky rabbits foot because it was- somehow- a protection against witchcraft since it was already associated with evil.). There is evidence that Romans kept domesticated rabbits in runs in areas of Europe such as Corsica and along with their reputation as evil, they also had a reputation in medieval Europe as symbols of fertility and sexuality.[6]
The only reason that I can see that would cause rabbits to be worth the effort to bring over is the fact that rabbits are domesticated while hares are not. Rabbits had been kept as pets and “cattle” in Europe since Roman times and since they were already domesticated, hunting them was much easier than the wild hares. Rabbits also have the benefit of being social creatures so they can be kept in one area and hunted in batches at a time. With rabbits, you have to put work into them but, barring disease or famine, you are pretty much guaranteed a harvest of pelts and meat whereas hunting hares doesn’t always guarantee a “harvest.” Add to that the tradition in Europe of keeping rabbits and the Normans choice to import rabbits seems slightly less bizarre.
It was the tradition of the nobility since the Roman empire and it was an easy source of pelts and food. Hares, on the other hand, resisted domestication, required individual hunting over large areas, and didn’t provide enough of a difference in size, taste, or product to make it worth the Norman’s effort to adapt to hunting them instead. Hence, they brought in rabbits to fill the niche.

[1] “Hare vs Rabbit”
[2] Susan E. Davis and Margo de Mello. Stories Rabbits Tell, New York:Lantern Books (2003) 142.
[3] “Hare vs Rabbit”
[4] Hemmer, Helmut. Domestication: The Decline of Environmental Appreciation. Cambridge University Press: Great Britain (1990) 158
[5] Davis, 133.
[6] Davis, 134-135


  1. If you look, hares have a different mouth than rabbits and can really go to town on some stems. I had been wondering if hares (in large numbers) are more destructive than rabbits for this reason, like alpacas vs other ruminants, but actually looking it up, apparently rabbits are now considered more destructive than hares?

    "The Book of the Farm" (having trouble telling the original year, but looking at a revised edition from 1889) states that rabbits are more destructive to corn crops than hares, but that hares are more damaging to turnips. Rabbits are now more of an invasive species due to their burrowing/breeding, but I'm wondering to what extent this is more of a modern concern anyhow? And now I'm up to my eyeballs in the history of Australian rabbit bans.

  2. Megan, I would assume that rabbits weren't widely thought of as a destructive species during this period. Unlike in Australia, there was the difficulty in keeping the rabbits alive. This means the rabbits would have been kept in specifically made locations that (as best I can gather) were relatively far from farmed land. The rabbits couldn't go very far from their burrows and didn't have many wild communities. If a lord began having issues with crops destroyed by rabbits, he would probably just have enough rabbits hunted to reduce the spread of the rabbit population.

    An unrelated point: Maybe the fact that hares change color made them less desirable? I know nothing about skinning animals and what one makes out of rabbit pelts. However, if you're trying to make something out of multiple pelts, it would presumably be helpful if they were all the same reliable color. Similarly, rabbits not changing color probably made them easier to hunt in the winter.

  3. It seems to me that the issue of domesticated vs undomesticated would be an important aspect. With the mention of how much faster hare are over rabbit it seems it would be much more convenient. It would probably be easier to send ferrets into a rabbit warren, then to have to chase down hare with dogs, etc.

  4. I agree with Phil. I think you found the answer in that rabbits are domesticated while hares are not. Being able to guarantee a supply of meat and fur rather than having to hunt for it makes a great deal of sense to me. Perhaps rabbit fur is softer?


  5. I wondered that myself (the fur differences) and rabbit fur IS softer than hare fur, at least according to my sources so this may well be a reason.